Q&A: What will it take to be the next generation development professional?

Photo by: Cytonn Photography from Pexels

Devex’s recent Next Generational Professional report, in partnership with DAI and the United States Agency for International Development, revealed that changes across the sector are impacting the global development job landscape significantly, as well as the skills that professionals need to stay relevant.

Beth Singh, vice president of human resources at DAI, and Alexis Bonnell, division chief of applied innovation and acceleration at USAID’s U.S. Global Development Lab, joined a recent Devex webinar to discuss how these changes are playing out in their organizations, and shared their advice for professionals looking to break into or advance their careers in development.

Devex followed up with Singh and Bonnell to get their thoughts on some additional questions which they were unable to address during the event. Here is what they had to say.

The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What advice do you have for someone with a background in agricultural economy and experience working as a licensed stockbroker in Nigeria who has a strong desire to work in global development — are there opportunities in the sector for someone with this background?

Alexis Bonnell: There are a lot of opportunities in blended finance and new financial models in agriculture that work with private sector and entrepreneurial models. I would become familiar with them and see if you can do a fellowship or spend time within one of these types of entities.

Aside from volunteer opportunities or the Peace Corps, do you have any advice for young professionals looking to obtain that critical international experience?

AB: I would try to do an internship with a social entrepreneur in the field, there are so many social entrepreneurs doing amazing things that could really use some hands-on support to help them navigate issues and opportunities. If I was a young professional now in development, an internship with a social innovator would have increased my field “credibility,” while exposing me to new dynamic players.

What advice do you have for an international development student due to graduate next year? What should they be doing now to help them get a job upon graduation? And how can they showcase activities that demonstrate some of the skills you mentioned [in the webinar]?

Beth Singh: Grab hold of some of those “buzz words” we talked about, and get them on your resumé — proven problem solver, agile professional, integrator, team leader, professional who thrives in ambiguity — these can all show up on your LinkedIn profile, resumé, anywhere that you put yourself out there for career opportunities.

The trick is to then to think about the specific situations you’ve faced where you’ve demonstrated those traits and be prepared to concisely share that in an interview or conversation with a prospective employer. It shows both that you’re prepared for an interview, and also that you understand where the industry is, what it needs, and what it values.

“If I were a student, in addition to my degree, I would be getting a basic project management certification — either PMI or PMBOK — as well as some human-centered design training and M&E familiarity.”

— Alexis Bonnell, division chief of applied innovation and acceleration at the U.S. Global Development Lab

AB: If I were a student, in addition to my degree, I would be getting a basic project management certification — either PMI or PMBOK — as well as some human-centered design training and M&E [monitoring and evaluation] familiarity. And of course, it is always good to invest in building strong networks that can help you engage in opportunities as they arise. I would also really invest some bandwidth in not only understanding new digital trends and technologies, but also reading up on actual case studies around how these technologies have been applied in development so that I could cite practical application.

How can individual development consultants use this type of information [from the Next Generational Professional report and webinar] to better position themselves to be competitive for projects now and in the future?

Webinar: Development professionals of the future

Experts from the USAID and DAI join Devex to discuss the changes impacting global development jobs and driving demand for integrators and tech-savvy professionals.

AB: It depends on what you want to consult about, but first and foremost you can expect that organizations engaging with development funding will need to be more savvy about how they partner with new players, including private sector, increase their familiarity with co-creation and HCD models, and most of all, exercise a better understanding of how to leverage new technology and innovation to get better impact returns.

It seems there has been a decrease in opportunities for entry- and mid-level professionals to work in long-term assignments “in the field.” What advice do you have for finding and successfully landing these types of positions?

BS: This can be a challenge in our traditional market when the funder approves key personnel for long-term assignments. Often in those situations, previous and proven international experience is highly valued. At DAI, we offer our early-career professionals opportunities to “shadow” more experienced colleagues on technical assignments and encourage short-term assignments that build a foundation over a fairly short period of time that the client will then support for a longer term role.

“My observation is that private sector partners may be more prepared to demonstrate flexibility and act quickly to offer a stand-out early career professional an opportunity for an overseas assignment.”

— Beth Singh, vice president of human resources at DAI

In addition, as our industry explores new donor markets, my observation is that private sector partners may be more prepared to demonstrate flexibility and act quickly to offer a stand-out early career professional an opportunity for an overseas assignment. Job seekers who want to break into international assignments should explore that market as well.

AB: I see that for those who are willing to go where the need is, there is still a lot of opportunity. I would look at the variety of players that specialize in harder to service locations like UNOPS, USAID, and department of defense implementers and partners, etc.

How do you position yourself as having the "new skills" when the consultant rosters of most development organizations are still structured to silo experts into "old" specializations?

AB: I would remember that the elements of development that are evolving the most are not the “what” — sectors such as education, health, democracy — but rather the “how” — new technology, digitization, innovation, partnership, private sector engagement, growth of impact investing, and local social entrepreneurs.

New skills can be focused on the “how” of your evolution, and as you build the “how” toolkit, most of it is often applicable to more than one “what,” or sector of work. By adapting your “how” you help evolve the “what.”

What do you look for in a resumé that tells you a candidate possesses the soft skills you mentioned in the webinar, particularly those traits surrounding integrator tendencies?

AB: I would call out the results-driven examples of your work, the “how” you exercised integration. For example, a bullet on my resume includes “navigated and secured over 100 partners, resulting in a successful launch of the platform in less than 90 business days.”

BS: Resumés should stand out as a list of accomplishments, not a recast of a job description with roles and responsibilities. The resumé that gets a recruiter’s attention is the one that shows the chronology of your professional experiences while highlighting the impact you made in each role you’ve held.

Use active, descriptive language, and be bold in the story you tell. Rather than using language like “as a member of a team or supported” try “led” or “partnered” or “convened” to more specifically state your role and your contribution.

About the author

  • Emma smith

    Emma Smith

    Emma Smith is a Senior Careers Reporter at Devex, based in Barcelona. She focuses on bringing the latest career and hiring trends, tips, and insights to our global development community. Emma has a background in journalism and, in addition to writing for news publications, has worked with organizations focusing on child rights and women’s rights in sustainable development.